Helping decarbonize industry with carbon capture and storage

In a wide-ranging Q&A, Joe Blommaert, the head of ExxonMobil Low Carbon Solutions, explains how his team is working to commercialize and deploy technologies to help cut global emissions and address the impact of climate change.

Perspective Aug. 12, 2021

Helping decarbonize industry with carbon capture and storage

Raised in the Netherlands, Joe Blommaert experienced firsthand what creative thinking and bold engineering could achieve. He saw how the dikes and canals protected the land from the North Sea: no small feat, considering a third of the country lies below sea level.

“I love engineering,” Blommaert explains. “You get to solve big challenges by combining scientific principles with outside-the-box thinking.”

And today, as president of ExxonMobil Low Carbon Solutions, Blommaert uses that same mindset to tackle another big challenge: helping address the challenges of climate change by deploying technologies to capture and safely store carbon dioxide emissions.

At the heart of this effort is working to scale carbon capture and storage in two hard-to-decarbonize industries–manufacturing from heavy industry and power generation. Combined, these two sectors account for about 70 percent of the world’s emissions, and capturing those emissions could go a long way in helping to meet the world’s climate targets outlined in the Paris Agreement.

Having captured more human-made CO2 around the world than anyone else, the company is well positioned to develop and scale up deployment of CCS solutions.

ExxonMobil is also conducting longer-term research on several promising innovations with outside organizations, including direct air capture technology to scrub emissions out of the air and carbonate fuel cells to capture industrial emissions from flue gas streams of power plants or manufacturing facilities.

Blommaert and his team are looking to commercialize and deploy a portfolio of these breakthrough decarbonization technologies as part of their work to reduce industrial emissions. It is meticulous work, centered on complex technology at a massive scale and involving a growing network of stakeholders. Progress is measured in months and years instead of days and weeks.

ExxonMobil is one of 11 companies that have expressed interest in the large-scale deployment of carbon capture and storage to help effectively decarbonize major industrial areas in Houston. When fully operational, the effort could capture and permanently store about 100 million metric tons of CO2 annually by 2040.

Blommaert recently took some time to talk about the Low Carbon Solutions business and what ExxonMobil is doing to help lower emissions and drive decarbonization around the world.

ExxonMobil (EM): When it comes to reducing emissions, what is the company doing?

Joe Blommaert (JB): Quite a bit! We recently launched the Low Carbon Solutions business to invest $3 billion over the next four years on lower-emission energy solutions. One of our initial focus areas is scaling up carbon capture and storage. It’s an ambitious endeavor, but one that we are ideally suited to undertake given our experience operating large projects. Thanks to our engineers and scientists, we scale up the most promising innovations to support our upstream, downstream and chemicals businesses. Low Carbon Solutions will leverage that expertise to bring the most promising CCS innovations to scale.

EM: Can carbon capture and storage live up to its full potential?

JB: CCS is happening today. ExxonMobil was the first to capture more than 120 million metric tons of CO2, which is equivalent to the annual emissions of more than 25 million cars. And to date, we’ve captured 40% of all human-made CO2 that’s ever been captured. We’re now using that expertise to develop technologies to capture CO2 from natural gas exhaust streams where CO2 concentrations are more diluted, making the capture process that much more difficult.

The storage part of the equation will also require significant investments, including the selection of sites where CO2 can be safely, securely and permanently stored in underground storage sites. At ExxonMobil, our engineers and scientists’ deep understanding in geology and reservoir engineering help the company identify and select some of the most promising long-term CO2 storage opportunities. 

EM: Can the world meet climate targets, including those in the Paris Agreement, without CCS?

JB: The short answer is no. The International Energy Agency says it would be “virtually impossible” to reach net-zero emissions without CCS operating at scale. The fact is, demand for energy will continue to grow as populations increase and standards of living improve for many around the world. And lower-emission fossil fuels like natural gas—coupled with CCS—will continue to help meet that demand for quite a while. Supplying the world with the energy it needs while also addressing the impact of climate change requires an all-of-the-above approach that includes renewables, lower-emission biofuels and CCS.

EM:  Can you tell us more about the plan for large-scale CCS in Houston?

JB: Large-scale deployment of CCS in Houston is a potential game-changer. The 11 companies that announced their interest in doing so believe we could ultimately enable the capture and permanent storage of 100 million metric tons of CO2 annually. That’s four times more than what the world is doing right now. To put this in perspective, it would have the potential to capture as much CO2 as if the entire state of California were covered by forest. The region could capture CO2 emissions from petrochemical, manufacturing and power generation plants operating in and around Houston, then safely and permanently store them in geological formations deep underground or under the seabed. It’s an ambitious goal, and one that will require collaboration with multiple stakeholders, including academia, industry and all levels of government.

EM: Why is Houston an ideal location for to deploy CCS?

JB:  Location, location, location. Houston has one of the largest concentrated sources of industrial CO2 emissions in the United States.  It’s also close to large geological formations out in the Gulf of Mexico, which according to the U.S. Department of Energy, could hold 500 billion metric tons of CO2. To put that in perspective, that’s more than 130 years of the country’s total industrial and power generation emissions that could be permanently stored deep under the Gulf of Mexico. So as much as the sun-drenched U.S. Southwest is ideal for generating solar power and the windswept plains of the Midwest are fantastic for wind power, the U.S. Gulf Coast and Houston are perfect places to deploy large-scale CCS. Beyond Houston, this idea could also act as a blueprint to develop other CCS hubs in some of the world’s other industrial zones in Asia and Europe.

EM: Beyond CCS, what other emission-cutting technologies is Low Carbon Solutions developing?

JB: CCS is an essential part of our portfolio. Hydrogen is also a focus. Removing carbon from methane, which is the largest component of natural gas, leaves us with low-emission hydrogen that could generate electricity or fuel cars and trucks. Biofuels, including the potential to scale up production of biodiesels from algae and other non-food crops, is also crucial part of our Low Carbon Solutions portfolio.

EM: Finally, on the policy front, what is needed to incentivize investments in CCS and other emission-reduction technologies?

JB:  The CCS opportunities that ExxonMobil is evaluating have the potential to move forward with current technologies for large-scale, game-changing emissions reductions. When it comes to effective policy, for us it starts with the need to understand the value of carbon by establishing a market price for it. This would provide the clarity and stability required to drive investments. We recognize that no single technology can enable society to achieve its lower-carbon ambitions. So all technologies need to be supported to allow for continued global growth and improved standards of living while also addressing climate change. Stable, supportive policies and regulatory frameworks are critical to enable new technology and infrastructure development at the pace and scale needed to help meet the goals of the Paris Agreement. These include durable incentives that can be provided through a variety of mechanisms, such as grants, tax credits—including opportunities to expand the 45Q tax credit in the United States—or low-interest loans. Additionally, sustained, long-term government support for research and development will also be critical. Providing initial policy support for CCS could ultimately facilitate the development of an effective marketplace that can drive down costs and spur additional investment in new carbon capture technologies, low-emission hydrogen production, direct air capture and other solutions.

Learn more about how ExxonMobil is reducing greenhouse gas emissions and about the company’s 2025 emission-reduction plans.